With caps on attendance and new Covid-19 safety guidelines, including mandatory mask wearing and social distancing, theme parks have had to reimagine their Halloween festivities of 2020.
The fall holiday has morphed into the single most important event for theme parks, Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Parks Services, said. “A down Halloween or a flat Halloween can make or break a park’s season,” Speigel said. “This season we are so broken, it’s just going to take our revenue and attendance levels to the lowest level we’ve ever seen.”
Halloween events, which range from haunted houses and scare zones to kid-friendly parades and trick-or-treating booths, have become incredibly popular with guests in the U.S. and abroad. These events often pad the bottom line for theme park operators like Universal, Disney and Six Flags.
At first, Halloween events were a way to extend operations at regional parks well into the autumn months. Roller coasters are less appealing during colder weather and, with school back in session, families aren’t able to go to parks during the weekdays in the fall.
Over time, it evolved into lucrative months-long festivals. Theme parks across the U.S. bring in the hay bales, giant jack-o’-lanterns and cobwebs as early as August to kick-off the spooky season. Typically, Halloween events take place after traditional park hours and require a separate ticket purchase. So the parks are making money from both the guests that visit during the day and those that arrive when the sun goes down.
These events, particularly ones with multiple haunted houses, draw guests for multiple nights. Six Flags noted during an earnings call last year that visitors often come to the park three to four times to experience the event.
For some parks, like Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and SeaWorld-owned Busch Gardens, Halloween is all about gore, scares and screams. These parks design elaborate mazes filled with creepy creatures and plenty of jump scares.
Knott’s Berry Farm, which launched its Knott’s Scary Farm event in 1973, was the first park to dream up a Halloween-themed event. Unfortunately, for the park, which is owned by Cedar Fair, California has not lifted restrictions on theme parks reopening in the state, so it has been unable to host its annual Halloween event.
“Being the original creators of the very first Halloween theme-park experience, our guests have come to expect a lot from our annual Knott’s Scary Farm event,” Knott’s Berry Farm said in a statement to CNBC.
“When evaluating what to do this Halloween season, our biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to create and deliver an experience that our guests will enjoy while ensuring they are staying 6 feet apart, wearing a mask at all times, continuously sanitizing all highly-touched surfaces, adding sanitizing stations, touchless transactions, and limiting contact while at the park,” it said.
This year, the park is offering Knott’s Taste of Fall-O-Ween, an outdoor dining and retail experience. Currently, Knott’s Berry Farm is capping attendance between 10% and 15% of what it normally would be and has sold out its tickets everyday it’s been open.
“We were ready to safely open our park when given clearance, and it was disappointing to not be given guidance to entertain more of our guests who look forward to Halloween at Knott’s every year,” a representative for the park said. And it’s not the only one. Last year, SeaWorld saw attendance in the fourth quarter jump 2.2% despite unfavorable weather. The company said that its Halloween event was one reason for the uptick.
SeaWorld owns Busch Gardens, which has parks in Virginia and Florida. It’s Florida park, Busch Garden’s Tampa Bay, began planning its annual Howl-O-Scream event back in February.